Junichiro Tanizaki, one of the most renowned Japanese novelists of the 20th century, is celebrated for igniting a wave of literary works in Japan that delve into the country’s past, particularly the era of the samurai. On behalf of all enthusiasts of Japan and the samurai, we owe him our gratitude.
Set in the 16th century (Sengoku Jidai), during a time of great (and brutal) rulers, commanders, and warriors, such as Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, “A Blind Man’s Tale” unfolds amidst grand battles, cunning tactics, and intense love affairs, culminating in the famous Battle of Sekigahara. For those not deeply fascinated by samurai and Japanese history, a simplified summary would be: “A really cool period in Japan with samurais.” 😀
The story begins with Jaiichi, a blind masseur and musician, who somewhere between Edo and Kyoto in Japan, massages weary gentlemen. To one of his visitors, whom he perceived as literate and educated (a notable attribute for that time), he opened his heart along with his massage services and began recounting his memories of serving Lady Oichi, believed to be one of the most beautiful women ever, akin to Helen of Troy. She was the sister of Lord Oda Nobunaga and the wife of the famous feudal lord, the honorable Asai Nagamasa.
As a blind servant and a favored retainer of Lady Oichi, Jaiichi had access everywhere, allowing him to overhear both significant and trivial matters. However, Jaiichi himself claims he was modest and timid, finding his greatest pleasure in serving Lady Oichi and her daughters, massaging them and playing the shamisen for them.
Alas, Jaiichi narrates how life was not always benevolent in the castle. Lady Oichi’s husband and brother became deeply estranged. Nobunaga, with his uncompromising and corrupt tactics, expanded his domains, even encroaching upon territories ruled by Nagamasa’s close allies, which troubled the honorable Nagamasa. This led to Nobunaga’s cunning and wickedness fully manifesting, as he seized every opportunity to subjugate Nagamasa’s lands, driving him to suicide. Oichi had to retreat with her daughters to a remote castle, where they spent nearly a decade isolated from the world. Yet, the faithful Jaiichi was there, serving them while keeping an ear out for news from outside the castle.
After Nobunaga’s death, as Jaiichi continues, a fierce rivalry developed between two of Nobunaga’s vassals and commanders, Katsui and Hideyoshi, which eventually turned into open hostility.
Later, Lady Oichi married Lord Katsui, and it seemed she would finally enjoy happiness with her family. But her joy was short-lived, as Katsui and Hideyoshi went to war. Jaiichi witnessed all these events as a (blind) calm and powerless observer.
Why we find Jaiichi wandering Japan at the end of the novel, what happened to Lady Oichi and her daughters, why Oichi detested Hideyoshi, among other crucial questions, I leave for you to discover when you read this work.
The novel is short and a quick read, and regarding the writing style, or rather the translation, I have this to say.
Connoisseurs and admirers of Japan, its culture, and literature, are undoubtedly familiar with the name Dragan Milenkovic. In 1994, he received a Special Award for Translation from the “Japanese Association of Literary Translators” and the “Japanese Pen Club,” the only one received by someone from this part of Europe, specifically for the translation of this work. Although I do not know Japanese (yet), I have no doubt that Dragan Milenkovic did an excellent job. The novel is a truly delightful reading experience, and through Jaiichi’s words, you can almost visualize the events he witnessed.
Lovers of Japan and the samurai are probably already heading to the nearest bookstore. And the rest of you should do the same. 🙂
The book is a hit.
That’s all. 🙂
Question for dear readers: Do you perhaps have any similar works to recommend?
(Originally reviewed: 05/11/2018)